Saturday, November 01, 2008

What makes someone genuinely conservative?

If you were to believe the mainstream media we are blessed with a real choice in politics between left-wing progressives and right-wing conservatives.

But do we really get such a choice? When you look at their beliefs, most of the establishment "conservatives" turn out to be right-liberals, who follow something similar to an older classical liberalism.

So our choice is, in reality, restricted to two variants of liberalism: a social democratic left-liberalism and a free market oriented right-liberalism.

I'm not alone in doubting the credentials of the establishment conservatives. In a recent article at Brussels Journal, Takuan Seiyo pulled no punches in describing the limited options for voters in the US elections:

In the United States - a country that has ruined itself through its own naïveté about human nature, about the world and about itself, the presidential election is being contested between a right-liberal candidate of the Stupid Party and a left-liberal candidate of the Evil Party.

Over at What's Wrong with the World, a similar observation is made:

"Conservatism" is in our time not conservatism but right-liberalism: political liberalism with a few 'conservative' unprincipled exceptions ... For a while that meant that 'conservatism' was classical liberalism; now it means, for the most part, culturally 'big tent' neoconservatism ...

So looking beyond the election of this very moment, the way to beat the Left politically ... is to stop becoming the Left ... the hard Left has a whole core worldview which anchors it and which it will not give up for anything. The Right has nothing of the kind: the political Right is basically a classical liberalism / neoconservatism ...

... as long as 'conservatives' are willing to support liberals like McCain just because he tepidly throws them a few policy bones, conservatism will be not merely neutralized, but will remain complicit in the inexorable march of liberal modernity/postmodernity. (Hat tip: Vanishing American)

It's important then for a newer generation of conservatives to support something other than right-liberalism. Which raises the question of how we define a genuine, non-liberal conservatism.

I won't attempt here to give a definitive answer to the question. I just want to kick things off by making a few relevant points.

First, you can't be a conservative unless you are seeking to conserve some aspect of the society you live in.

The thing you want to conserve, though, cannot be liberal values. If this is what you want to conserve, then you are a liberal and not a conservative.

The former Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, attempted to define conservatism as conserving liberal values. In a speech he made while in office, he stated openly that:

.... ours is a liberal government holding liberal principles.

He went on to argue that:

I have stressed the commitment of the Government to liberal principles and values. Precisely because of that commitment it is also concerned to conserve and protect those principles and values.

Once liberal institutions are installed in a society, a government which wishes to preserve them must in some sense be conservative.

The idea that conservatism means preserving liberal values is a losing one for genuine conservatives. Fraser in his subsequent political life has proved this over and over by adopting all the latest "progressive" liberal views.

There's a second pitfall to be avoided. It's no use seeking to conserve a particular entity in society on the liberal grounds that the entity can be defined any way we want it to be.

Former Liberal Party minister Tony Abbott took this road not so long ago. In a speech full of eloquent references to Edmund Burke, he sought to defend the family as follows:

Supporting families shouldn’t mean favouring one family type over others. We have to resist yearning for “ideal” families and “traditional” mothers. Every family is a source of nurturing and security for its members.

This is useless. What are we really seeking to conserve if it's thought illegitimate to favour one family type over others? If all kinds of living arrangements are equally valid, then the task is not to conserve any existing arrangement, but to overthrow any preference or advantage for the traditional type. We are back with a radical liberalism, rather than a genuine conservatism.

So a genuine conservatism must seek to conserve a distinct entity of society that is not a liberal value or institution.

People are most likely to be drawn toward a genuine conservatism if what they wish to conserve is their own larger communal tradition, i.e. their ethny or nation.

I'll give as an example a recent defence of fatherhood by American columnist Kathleen Parker. She wrote:

as long as boys are bereft of strong fathers and our young men and women wage sexual war, then we risk cultural suicide.

In the coming years we will need men who are not confused about their responsibilities. We need boys who have acquired the virtues of honour, courage, valour and loyalty. We need women willing to let men be men – and boys be boys. And we need young men and women who will commit and marry and raise children in stable homes.

I'm not exactly sure where Kathleen Parker stands politically. She may not be consistently conservative in the way I'd prefer. Nonetheless, the above quote is useful because it shows how an aversion to 'cultural suicide' encourages a wider concern for the traditions which sustain a society.

Kathleen Parker is right to suggest that unless boys are brought up to be confident about the masculine virtues, they are less likely to make adult commitments, particularly to family life.

If there is no tradition you identify with, then this won't seem so problematic. If there is no larger entity you are trying to keep going, then you're less likely to be concerned if young men lack confidence and direction and if family formation is disrupted.

So it works best if conservatives set out to conserve their own larger communal tradition - their ethny or nation - rather than one aspect of it alone (such as family, church, language, culture or history).


  1. Yes, this is something I have long noticed too. That social conservatism does not get much airplay. There are left blogs and libertarian blogs in Australia but few social conservative blogs. And socially conservative politicians aren't that common either. Malcolm Turnbull is about as socially conservative as Kevin Rudd. In some ways, Rudd is better in this regard.


  2. The general difficulty is that conservatism today is mostly made up of anti-Leftism, and my intial reaction (even though Mr. Richardson hasn't ask for "how to" yet) is some anti-Left project. That's why so many conservatives are liberals, albeit right-liberals.

    Find something in your past that can be restored, some tradition that was abandoned by your family / nation / ethnos. I say "restore" because you don't want to be a liberal, just picking and choosing according to your personal preference. Do something that was real, and would still be, except for liberalism. If you already have such traditions, revel in them with more gusto, and try to bring others into the party.

    Be a Christian. There's no better way for a Westerner to hold to the core of Western tradition, and you also participate with the transcendant--a real God!--in a non-technocratic way. Plus, you get to go to heaven and not hell. But avoid a liberal church.

    At the same time, I suggest adopting a meaty pre-liberal point and learn the arguments for it, and the liberal arguments used to rout it. Then "make it your own"
    by defending it. This will immediately help you identify all the liberals in your life, and is good practice for being a thorough non-liberal.

    One suggestion: no vote for women. If something like that horrifies you, then you, too, are still a liberal. I'm thinking here of _practicing_ a real non-liberal mindset, and there's no better way than something monstrously illiberal.

    Reading Richard Weaver can be helpful.

  3. I agree, Jaz, that a real, traditional Christianity is a major step towards true conservatism. A good way to resist liberalism, when it should be resisted, is to base one's objections on one's religious beliefs.

    Scoial conservatism is the politics that dares not speak its name, to adapt a saying. It is not that one necessarily wishes to adopt a full-blown social conservatism; but rather to add its best fruits to the best fruits of right and left liberalism. For example, I don't follow many social conservatives who want to erect inefficient and "rent-seeking" barriers to trade in order, allegedly, to protect a way of life. A solidly based way of life should survive on its own merits.

    As a Catholic who normally attends the Traditional Latin Mass, I find many of my conservative thoughts and instincts supported by my expressions of faith; including traditional and life-giving differences between the sexes.


  4. I've quoted this before on my own Journal - but I think that it is relevant to most discussions about conservatism.

    From Robert Lewis Dabney's Women’s Rights Women:

    It may be inferred again that the present movement for women’s rights will certainly prevail from the history of its only opponent, Northern conservatism. This is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt bath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth, and has no idea of being guilty of the folly of martyrdom. It always, when about to enter a protest, very blandly informs the wild beast whose path it essays to stop, that its “bark is worse than its bite,” and that it only means to save its manners by enacting its decent role of resistance. The only practical purpose which it now subserves in American politics is to give enough exercise to Radicalism to keep it “in wind,” and to prevent its becoming pursy and lazy from having nothing to whip. No doubt, after a few years, when women’s suffrage shall have become an accomplished fact, conservatism will tacitly admit it into its creed, and thenceforward plume itself upon its wise firmness in opposing with similar weapons the extreme of baby suffrage; and when that too shall have been won, it will be heard declaring that the integrity of the American Constitution requires at least the refusal of suffrage to asses. There it will assume, with great dignity, its final position.

  5. Jaz wrote: At the same time, I suggest adopting a meaty pre-liberal point and learn the arguments for it, and the liberal arguments used to rout it. Then "make it your own"
    by defending it. This will immediately help you identify all the liberals in your life, and is good practice for being a thorough non-liberal.

    One suggestion: no vote for women. If something like that horrifies you, then you, too, are still a liberal. I'm thinking here of _practicing_ a real non-liberal mindset, and there's no better way than something monstrously illiberal.

    A good start would be Robert Dabney's Women's Rights Women & The Unexpurgated Case Against Woman Suffrage by Wright, Almroth, 1861-1947

    More information on the subject can be found in the sidebar under Women's Suffrage at TheFemale Misogynist.

  6. The notion that Christianity is a bedrock of conservatism is interesting because it can be argued that Protestantism is a highly individualistic rather than conservative faith. There is you, your conscience and God. People are left largely to live their religious life largely on their own without criticism. This is reflected in society today in a general antipathy to criticise people's decisions, especially decisions of conscience because they are personal or matters of "personal faith". Perhaps it is no coincidence that Protestantism and Liberalism grew at roughly the same time in history.

  7. I disagree that Protestantism is individualistic. The Reformation Movement desired to do what the Bible says and to reform those areas of the church that were inconsistent with Scripture.

    Implicit in Scripture is the word fellowship just as the Earliest Church got its start it was included in the life of the church in Acts 2. That chapter shows a church that shares with each other and meets daily from house to house.

    The conversions in the book of Acts were household affairs in that those of adult age who believed were baptised. There is nothing individualistic about that. While I grant you that many Protestant Churches have gotten far off track, the desire to conform to Scripture is not individualistic.

    What is individualistic is the call to live a life that is holy and one that is moral. There is a call for men to lead in their homes, in the church, and in the social order. There is a call for women to respect their husbands and to care for their children.

    The bedrock of conservatism is that there are moral absolutes. These absolutes call one even to question authority when it is wrong. It criticises decisions; that is what got the Apostles jailed and martyred.

  8. "One suggestion: no vote for women. If something like that horrifies you, then you, too, are still a liberal."

    Thank goodness misogynists like you are a dying breed.

  9. Misogynist! Now I've heard more than everything. You know those travel suitcases that have stickers all over them? I have one, only I collect epithets that bitter leftists hurl at me thinking I will melt and cower in fear, and I was only missing "misogynist". You made me a proud man today, my collection is complete.

    I heartily recommend David Stove's "The Intellectual Capacity of Women". It'll make you dizzy with rage.

  10. "One suggestion: no vote for women. If something like that horrifies you, then you, too, are still a liberal."

    If someone can point to me why a return to a more sane view of the world necessitates taking the vote from women, I'm sure I'd be much obliged!

  11. "One suggestion: no vote for women. If something like that horrifies you, then you, too, are still a liberal.""

    Elizabeth I and Maria Theresa were hardly liberals and they wanted all the votes in their respective countries to be wielded by women, namely themselves.